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I‘m part Jewish, part Australian and part Indian: where do I belong?

When ELANA BENJAMIN was asked to write about growing up Indian in Australia, she faced an identity crisis.
Elana Benjamin
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Elana Mumbai

Elana Benjamin with her husband (left) and father, in Mumbai

Published: 26 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

When ELANA BENJAMIN was asked to write about growing up Indian in Australia, she faced an identity crisis.

Black Inc.’s latest anthology in their Growing Up series, Growing Up Indian in Australia, will be published this July. I’m thrilled to be a contributor. But I almost didn’t send in a submission. As the child of Indian-Jewish immigrants to Australia, I’m not typical Indian – I’m white, my mother never wore a sari, we didn’t celebrate Diwali.

So I wasn’t sure I belonged in a collection of Indian stories. At the same time, I was drawn to writing about my experience growing up in a Jewish-Australian family so closely tied to India, one which is shared by few others.

While I contemplated whether or not to submit, my daughter weighed in. “You’re not ethnically Indian! You can’t submit!” she insisted. When I finally decided to start writing and see where it took me, she accused me of cultural appropriation. Her message was clear: You don’t belong there. And it stung.

It’s well established that belonging is a core human need. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only physiological needs (food, air, water and shelter) are more important. Expanding on Maslow, recent research shows that finding a sense of belonging in close social relationships and with community is vital for wellbeing.

As a child, I had a deep sense of belonging to my large Sephardi-Mizrahi family. Among the Benjamin clan, I was gloriously the same as everyone else: all my 17 first cousins on my father’s side have at least one parent who’s from Bombay and many, like me, have two. Away from the Benjamins, though, life was different.

I have previously written about what it was like to grow up Sephardi-Mizrahi in Sydney’s predominantly Ashkenazi community, about the deep chasm between my Indian-Iraqi home life and my Ashkenormative school life. About how, unlike my parents, who found their place in Sydney’s small Sephardi community after emigrating from India, I struggled to find where I belonged in the Jewish community. About how I moved quietly between my Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds and became an expert at adapting myself and blending in.

James Clear writes in Atomic Habits that “Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers.” But there’s a difference between true belonging and fitting in.

David Baddiel spoke to the audience at the Jewish Writers Festival as if we were all white descendants of Holocaust survivors.

My Jewish day school education, together with my marriage into an Ashkenazi family over 20 years ago, means that I comfortably fit into Australia’s Ashkenazi community. I have an intimate knowledge and understanding of Ashkenazi culture, history, traditions and cuisine. Still, the Ashkenazi world isn’t home for me. And there are times I still don’t feel seen in the wider Jewish community.

For example, at last year’s Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, I sat through keynote speaker David Baddiel’s prescient Jews Don’t Count session feeling invisible, as he spoke to the audience as if we were all white descendants of Holocaust survivors. More recently, an otherwise excellent article by Mia Freedman about the doxxing of the Jewish Creatives’ WhatsApp group similarly stated that “generational trauma runs deep in the veins of every Jewish person in the world; we all lost family members in the Holocaust…”

I’m also a minority in Australia’s Indian community. My upbringing and heritage means I’m deeply connected to Indian culture, history, traditions and cuisine. But while I can blend into the Ashkenazi community, I cannot pass as Indian. Just one glance at me and you will know – in my daughter’s words – that I am not ethnically Indian. Among Indian-Australians, I cannot hide. And that’s why I was reluctant to write a piece for the anthology – because I felt I would so obviously stand out as different.

Yet I did end up submitting. India is part of me, and I wanted to tell that story. And part of that story is the incredible sense of belonging I felt on my first visit to my parents’ hometown of Bombay, now Mumbai, over 20 years ago.

I visited India for the second time this summer, with my husband, two children, parents and brother. Before we left, I was looking forward to the same sense of belonging in Mumbai that I’d had on my first visit. Curiously though, I didn’t feel it this time.

In Braving the Wilderness, American researcher, professor and author Brené Brown writes that we can’t find true belonging in the outside world; that it can’t be found in people, places, society, culture or communities. Brown writes that we can only find true belonging within ourselves. When I first read those words some years ago, I didn’t understand them. But now I do.

During our stay in Mumbai, we visited the Nariman House Jewish Community Centre and saw the bullet holes of the devastating 2008 terrorist attacks. Until those attacks, the Jews of India had the unique – and remarkable – distinction of never having experienced antisemitism. True, the terrorist attacks have been attributed to Pakistani rather than Indian nationals. But in light of October 7 and the rise of antisemitism worldwide, I no longer felt India to be the safe haven for Jews that it once was.


Mumbai was also much more crowded, noisier and smoggier than I remembered. (That’s because it was. Estimates vary, but a quick Google search tells me that Mumbai’s population is now 21.67 million, compared to 16.87 million in 2003; more than a 25% increase. It’s also one of the most densely populated cities in the world.)

Standing in the 30-plus degree heat outside the apartment building where my mother grew up, with people everywhere and car horns honking incessantly, I turned to my mother. “Thank god you left here,” I blurted out.

For so long, I’d envied my parents for not being pulled between different worlds like I was. In Sydney, Mum and Dad maintained a strong sense of community by staying close to their Bombay friends and neighbours. Even today, their closest connections are to family and friends in the Sephardi-Mizrahi community. But that moment in Mumbai last December made me realise I’d romanticised my parents’ lives in India.

Sure, I knew all about the hardships they’d experienced in Bombay: the cramped living conditions, the lack of money, my paternal grandfather’s untimely death, the educational opportunities denied. But I was enchanted by the stories of the good life they’d lived, where most of the Jews resided in the same few streets, many in the same apartment buildings. Although they lacked material possessions, their lives were rich with the company of others who practiced the same traditions, ate similar food, sang the same prayer tunes and were blissfully free of antisemitism.

Brené Brown writes that we can only find true belonging within ourselves. At first, I didn’t understand her words. now I do.

I look back now and think of the times in my life when I felt an incredible sense of belonging, such as when I worked in corporate insurance with wonderful colleagues who, like me, had decided not to practice law. Or as a child surrounded by my cousins at our grandmother’s house. And I realise that I have mistaken real belonging for the feeling of being comfortable because I saw myself reflected in people and places that were similar, or familiar, to me.

The problem with that approach, I’ve learned, is that external situations are always changing – people move, careers change, loved ones die, cities grow. Which explains why we can’t rely on outside factors to give us a sense of belonging.

The book launch for Growing Up Indian in Australia is still some months away. I have to admit that turning up and potentially being the only non-brown-skinned contributor is more than a little daunting. (Thinking of this also gives me an insight into the ‘otherness’ and vulnerability that people of colour must feel in a room full of Caucasians.)

At the same time, it’s also liberating because it means I won’t be able to pretend to be anything other than who I am. The price we pay for fitting in is staying silent. Being invisible.

In her most recent book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes that “We can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people.”True belonging, she says, doesn’t require you to change who you are. “It requires you to be who you are.”

I am a woman who falls in the miniscule intersection of a Venn diagram with three circles: one Jewish, one Australian, the third Indian. I am a Sephardi-Mizrahi Jew, a first-generation Australian, the daughter of Indian immigrants. It's taken almost 50 years, but I finally see that that my place is here, in the in-between.

About the author

Elana Benjamin

Elana Benjamin is a Sydney-based writer whose articles have been published widely, including in Good Weekend, Sunday Life and the Sydney Morning Herald. Elana is also the author of ‘My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi’ and a co-founder of Sephardi Mizrahi Voices Australia.


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